WASHINGTON -- President Joe Biden presented the nation's highest military honor to retired Col. Ralph Puckett Jr., Friday, for his actions as a first lieutenant and the Eighth Army Ranger Company commander during the Korean conflict Nov. 25-26, 1950.
It has been seven decades since the Battle on Hill 205, where Puckett led his 57 Rangers and Korean soldiers against six battalion-sized attacks, marking the start of China's involvement in the Korean conflict against U.S. and U.N. forces.
The company dealt with freezing weather conditions without proper cold-weather gear. Food, ammunition, and supplies were also limited, as supply lines struggled to keep up with the Army's advance.
"The intelligence briefing indicated that there were 25,000 Chinese troops in the area,” Biden said. “[Puckett] believed in the fundamentals. It was how he trained his men, and how he had handpicked them, chosen from the ranks of cooks, clerks, and mechanics to [become] the first Ranger company since World War II.”
Outnumbered nearly 10-to-1, Puckett directed his company and waves of artillery support through the constant barrage of heavy enemy small-arms and mortar fire. He continually exposed himself to enemy fire as he maneuvered out of this foxhole to scan his defense perimeter and motivate his Soldiers.
Puckett was injured three times throughout the attack. A mortar attack severely injured him during the final Chinese assault. As the enemy overrun Hill 205, he ordered his Rangers to leave him behind and withdraw.
Puckett watched as three Chinese fighters drew closer, bayoneting and shooting the wounded. Disobeying their commander's orders, two of his Rangers charged and killed the three enemies and pulled their commander out of harm's way.
“They did not hold the hill but the Rangers extracted a high price,” Biden said. “[The Korean Conflict] is sometimes called the ‘Forgotten War’. Those men who were there under 1st Lt. Puckett’s command will never forget his bravery. They will never forget that he was right by their side throughout every minute of it.”
As he reached the base of the hill, Puckett requested a final white phosphorus incendiary munition attack at the top of Hill 205 to secure their egress.
“After more than a decade of effort … I'm incredibly proud to give Col. Ralph Puckett’s act of valor, the full recognition he always deserved,” Biden said.
Puckett was offered a medical discharge after the Korean conflict, but he refused. He endured a long recovery, which also led to a chance encounter with Jeannie, the lady who would become his lifelong wife as she visited him in the hospital on Fort Benning, Georgia, with a close friend. The two married nearly two years later.
“It is not just the person who wears the uniform who serves,” Biden said as he addressed Jeannie in the audience. “Military families make enormous sacrifices for our nation. So let me add our thanks to you and your life of service as well.”
Puckett was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on Hill 205 in 1951. He served in Vietnam in 1967, where he received a second Distinguished Service Cross for his efforts.
Throughout his career, he received two Silver Stars; two Legions of Merit; two Bronze Stars with V device for valor; five Purple Hearts; ten Air Medals; the Army Commendation Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal, among others.
After retiring from the Army in 1971, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, and continued to serve in different capacities.
In 1992, he was selected as an inaugural inductee into the U.S. Army Ranger Hall of Fame. He also provided a wealth of experience to the 75th Ranger Regiment as the regiment's first honorary colonel starting in 1996. What was supposed to be a conditional two-year term lasted until 2006.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in attended the ceremony to pay his respects to Puckett, his family, and the Eighth Army Ranger Company.
“I find it truly meaningful to join the Medal of Honor presentation ceremony for Col. Ralph Puckett Jr.,” Moon said, adding that it was a great honor to be invited to the ceremony as the first foreign leader to participate in an event.
“Col. Puckett is a true hero of the Korean War,” Moon said. “Without the sacrifice of veterans including Col. Puckett and the Eighth Army Ranger Company, freedom, and democracy we enjoy today couldn't have blossomed in Korea.”
“From the ashes of the Korean War we came back and that was thanks to the war veterans who fought for Korea's peace and freedom,” Moon added. The Republic of Korea and the U.S. alliance was forged in blood from heroes has become a linchpin of peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula and beyond. Col. Puckett and his fellow warriors are a link that thoroughly binds Korea and the U.S. together.”
Puckett's wife, kids, and grandkids, along with retired Lt. Col. John Lock, a military historian that pushed for the Medal of Honor upgrade, were in attendance. Also joining them was retired Master Sgt. Merle Simpson, a former technical sergeant and heavy weapons squad leader that fought in the battle.
"I never thought I would be picked for the company," Simpson said, during an interview on Thursday. "Puckett impressed me. If you made a mistake, you would do 50 pushups, and he would do 50 with you. There is no telling how many a day he did."
Puckett's influence pushed Simpson to be a better Ranger and leader. He was defending the other side of Hill 205 when he heard his commander was severely wounded. The news was hard to accept for him and the rest of the company, he recalled.
"It was hard for Ralph to lose a man, and he has never forgotten that," Simpson added. "I cannot speak for all those that passed away, but I am honored to be part of this. He was the type to influence everybody, including me."